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  • National Geographic reports on how, unchecked, global warming may wreck the coffee industry of Uganda.

  • Aeon notes the nervous system of the ctenophore, product of a separate evolutionary process from our own.

  • Phys.org describes a recent study suggesting Easter Island was not wrecked by ecocide. (The Rapanui were devastated by others, I would add.)

  • Even with an active magnetic field, an Earth-like atmosphere of Proxima Centauri b might be eroded away by flares. Universe Today reports on the climate model making this prediction.

  • Does bizarre Przybylski’s star, HD 101065, contain exotic superheavy elements in its atmosphere? New Scientist wonders.

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Easter Island, easternmost outpost of Polynesia, has long been of at least passing interest to me. Even before Jared Diamond had presented a story of the island culture's eventual decine through environmental exploitation as a warning for our times in the mid-1990s, I had been interested in the island for its cultural achievements. There were the famous moai statues, depicted in the books I read as a child as liberally scattered across the island, but there was also the mysterious rongorongo, something that might be a script but was currently undecipherable. What mysteries did the island hide?



Aurbina's photo in the Wikimedia Commons, "Moai set in the hillside at Rano Raraku", is superb.

Diamond's narrative was simple.

Eventually Easter’s growing population was cutting the forest more rapidly than the forest was regenerating. The people used the land for gardens and the wood for fuel, canoes, and houses--and, of course, for lugging statues. As forest disappeared, the islanders ran out of timber and rope to transport and erect their statues. Life became more uncomfortable-- springs and streams dried up, and wood was no longer available for fires.

People also found it harder to fill their stomachs, as land birds, large sea snails, and many seabirds disappeared. Because timber for building seagoing canoes vanished, fish catches declined and porpoises disappeared from the table. Crop yields also declined, since deforestation allowed the soil to be eroded by rain and wind, dried by the sun, and its nutrients to be leeched from it. Intensified chicken production and cannibalism replaced only part of all those lost foods. Preserved statuettes with sunken cheeks and visible ribs suggest that people were starving.

With the disappearance of food surpluses, Easter Island could no longer feed the chiefs, bureaucrats, and priests who had kept a complex society running. Surviving islanders described to early European visitors how local chaos replaced centralized government and a warrior class took over from the hereditary chiefs. The stone points of spears and daggers, made by the warriors during their heyday in the 1600s and 1700s, still litter the ground of Easter today. By around 1700, the population began to crash toward between one-quarter and one-tenth of its former number. People took to living in caves for protection against their enemies. Around 1770 rival clans started to topple each other’s statues, breaking the heads off. By 1864 the last statue had been thrown down and desecrated.


The problem with this story, I began learning a few years ago, is that it isn't true. The bulk of ecological damage to the island was, two archaeologists argued, a consequence of the accidental importation of the Polynesian rat, compromising native ecosystems. The Rapa Nui of the island ended up coping quite well, as described in 2013 at NPR.

For one thing, they could eat rats. As J.B. MacKinnon reports in his new book, The Once and Future World, archeologists examined ancient garbage heaps on Easter Island looking for discarded bones and found "that 60 percent of the bones came from introduced rats."

So they'd found a meat substitute.

What's more, though the island hadn't much water and its soil wasn't rich, the islanders took stones, broke them into bits, and scattered them onto open fields creating an uneven surface. When wind blew in off the sea, the bumpy rocks produced more turbulent airflow, "releasing mineral nutrients in the rock," J.B. MacKinnon says, which gave the soil just enough of a nutrient boost to support basic vegetables. One tenth of the island had these scattered rock "gardens," and they produced enough food, "to sustain a population density similar to places like Oklahoma, Colorado, Sweden and New Zealand today."

According to MacKinnon, scientists say that Easter Island skeletons from that time show "less malnutrition than people in Europe." When a Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggevin, happened by in 1722, he wrote that islanders didn't ask for food. They wanted European hats instead. And, of course, starving folks typically don't have the time or energy to carve and shove 70-ton statues around their island.

[. . .]

Because, say the Hawaiian anthropologists, clans and families on Easter Island didn't fall apart. It's true, the island became desolate, emptier. The ecosystem was severely compromised. And yet, say the anthropologists, Easter Islanders didn't disappear. They adjusted. They had no lumber to build canoes to go deep-sea fishing. They had fewer birds to hunt. They didn't have coconuts. But they kept going on rat meat and small helpings of vegetables. They made do.


Discover's Collide-a-scape took a look in 2014 at the shift in the consensus away from a long history of decline. Estimates of ancient population sizes have been found to be overlarge, for instance. The Rapa Nui seem to have been good custodians of their island. The newest studies seem to confirm this.

What ended a civilization that built so many impressive stone statues and even managed to develop what might have been a writing system? The statues were no longer being built when the Chileans came, nor was knowledge of rongorongo passed on. What happened to the Rapa Nui? Not ecocide, as Diamond's scenario implies, but genocide.



The above Wikimedia Commons picture shows Side b of Rongorongo Text R, one of the few rongorongo texts to survive. I saw them myself in a 2001-2002 exhibition at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, Splendid Isolation: The Art of Easter Island. The catalogue, happily, is available in PDF format here. Texts R and S were there on loan from the Smithsonian, along with a few dozen artifacts of pre-contact Rapa Nui society. This society did not survive, it turns out, because it was actively destroyed as a consequence of genocidal acts. Wikipedia's dry summary leaves my head spinning at the scale of the catastrophe.

In December 1862, Peruvian slave raiders struck Easter Island. Violent abductions continued for several months, eventually capturing or killing around 1500 men and women, about half of the island's population. International protests erupted, escalated by Bishop Florentin-Étienne Jaussen of Tahiti. The slaves were finally freed in autumn, 1863, but by then most of them had already died of tuberculosis, smallpox and dysentery. Finally, a dozen islanders managed to return from the horrors of Peru, but brought with them smallpox and started an epidemic, which reduced the island's population to the point where some of the dead were not even buried.


Little wonder, as I noted in my review of Andrew Robinson's Lost Languages, that the few survivors of Easter Island by the end of the 1860s had abandoned much of their traditional culture. For all its brilliance, all its accomplishments and knowledge, it had clearly failed to save the Rapa Nui from catastrophe. That conscious rejection made far more sense to me than Diamond's narrative of decline.

Savage Minds noted in 2005 that researchrs were challenging the integrity of Diamond's historical research. Sitting here in 2016, knowing what I know about how the depopulation of any number of colonized populations by disease and the extension of foreign rule and how this depopulation has been used to justify the very colonization, I wonder about the potential misuses of Diamond's apparent misinterpretation of the island's historical trajectory. Is his model of an imagined Easter Island as a metaphor for the Earth and its risks even usable?
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  • Anthropology notes the latest archeological findings suggesting that Easter Island was not destroyed by war.

  • Beyond the Beyond's Bruce Sterling notes that Wired will now no longer be allowing people with ad blockers to access the site.

  • The Dragon's Gaze notes the likely existence of a substantial gas giant in the disk of TW Hydrae and describes a Neptune-type world found through microlensing.

  • The Dragon's Gaze links to a paper suggesting, on the basis of the geology of Mars, that the early atmosphere was dominated by carbon dioxide with little oxygen.

  • Joe. My. God. links to the audio track of the new Pet Shop Boys single, "The Pop Kids".

  • Lawyers, Guns and Money notes opposition to the TPP in Indonesia.

  • Language Log notes a poster from the Second World War era United States propagandizing against the use of German, Italian, and Japanese.

  • Personal Reflections' Jim Belshaw contrasts Australia's response to the Syrian refugee crisis with Canada's.

  • The Power and the Money's Noel Maurer notes that Mexico's PEMEX may be in bad shape.

  • Spacing Toronto shares John Lorinc's skeptical essay about transit in Toronto. Grand schemes are great, but what about implementation?

  • Strange Maps maps Brexit, in various dimensions.

  • Torontoist suggests this city can learn from Detroit when it comes to repurposing vacant lots.

  • Window on Eurasia notes the growth of separate Muslim and Christian neighbourhoods in many cities.

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Daniel Davies' Pacific islands travelogue continued late last month with descriptions of life in Tahiti and Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island. Acute and entertaining, as always.

The Polynesian islands are about as remote as it gets in terms of the international supermarket supply chain, and that is to say … not really all that remote. The French supermarket giant Carrefour stretches out its long arm – and its astoundingly good own brand of Breton cider – as far as Tahiti without any problems. Pushing my trolley around the supermarket in Moorea, I saw many old friends on the shelves, plus a few lines which had clearly been sent there by a FFE in the Carrefour shipping department who was simply looking to show off (“foie gras in the Pacific? Oh I think that is not so difficult to achieve. But people there will also want apricot conserves and pate de campagne. I can achieve that too”).

Tahiti also gets the benefit of Kiwi ingenuity, coming from the other direction; Silver Fern Farms, a pretty ubiquitous meat processor, boxes up all the bits of the beasts that New Zealanders won’t buy and exports them to its neighbouring developing world populations. So it was that, having locked on the logo and been pleasantly surprised by the cheap price of imported veal, I ended up standing in a kitchen wondering what the hell I was going to do with a box of veal hearts.

The fact that all the imported food seemed to be priced about where I’d expect it to be in an OECD supermarket did make me wonder how the locals managed, given that they didn’t seem to be earning OECD wages. The answer was that they ate a lot of fish, particularly tuna, which was locally caught, absurdly cheap and very good indeed.

Easter Island seemed to be more of a challenge for the shipping industry as it’s considerably further away from anywhere. If you’re allergic to fish, as one of my kids is, you’re going to have a tough time. But even there, it was more a question of things like fresh produce not being available at all, rather than being expensive. It really lets you see how amazingly cheap container shipping is, and even airfreight isn’t so very much as a proportion of the price of anything with any value-added element to it at all.
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  • Anders Sandberg, as a good scientist, takes a look at the evidence same-sex marriage could be associated with floods (as a Briton claimed) by looking at his native Sweden.

  • Beyond the Beyond's Bruce Sterling thinks that a Facebook executive's prediction of the death of E-mail is substantially a Facebook power grab.

  • BlogTO chronicles the history of the Spadina Hotel, an edifice whose history as a hotel may have come to an end with the closure of the hostel that took its place.

  • Discover's Collideascape notes that the parable of Easter Island as a metaphor for global environmental collapse is no longer supported by the data.

  • Far Outliers takes note of the Arab awakening in the Ottoman Middle East circa 1915.

  • The Power and the Money's Noel Maurer thinks that the Syrian civil war hasn't become a conventional conflict and isn't close to ending.

  • Gideon Rachman takes a look at the plight of maids, specifically Indonesian ones, in Hong Kong.

  • Savage Minds revisits Franz Boas' classic essay The Methods of Ethnology.

  • Supernova Condensate rightly takes issue with a Nature blogger, Henry Gee, who has taken to outing anonymous bloggers.

  • Towleroad notes the Japanese government's defense of the barbarous Taiji dolphin hunt.

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  • 80 Beats reports on new research arguing that Easter Island was doomed not by the people's overuse of resources but rather by invasive rats.

  • Writing at the Everyday Sociology Blog, Colby King describes how he experienced Las Vegas as a sociologist and as a tourist at once.

  • Eastern Approaches notes the success of the heavily Russophone-supported Harmony Centre party in the recent Latvian election.

  • Far Outliers quotes from Bloodlands about the ways in which casualty numbers and perpetrators are used to deploy Second World War casualty figures for political reasons.

  • Geocurrents reports on the nationalism and history of the Barotse people of western Zambia.

  • The Global Sociology Blog observes that Western countries allow the export of relatively inexpensive and highly capable surveillance technologies that permit governance both minimalist and repressive.

  • Naked Anthropologist Laura Agustín (originally writing in Spanish but translated via Google Translate) talks about how migrants are willing to take risks--including participate in the sex trade--in order to benefit themselves in the longer run in unknown or uncertain ways.
  • Normblog's Norman Geras is overkind to people who suspect that Gadaffi wouldn't have engaged in a bloody massacre of Benghazi had his forces been allowed to enter the city before the NATO intervention.
  • Slap Upside the Head seems not that pleased that queer men in Britain can now donate blood if they haven't had sex in the year prior to their donation.
  • Writing in French at Une heure de peine (but translated into English thanks to Google Translate), Denis Colombi argues that the example of Steve Jobs shows that capitalism needs charismatic businessmen if it's to innovate.

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